A lot of cider apple trees — the kind that produce fruit for hard apple cider — aren’t easy to come by. Most of them are old European or American heirloom varieties that aren’t readily available for commercial purchase. And you can’t just grow the trees you want by planting seeds from your favorite apple. No two apple seeds are alike; each contains a unique mix of genetic material.
To propagate artisanal cider trees, you often have to graft.
That’s exactly what 50 people opted to do on a Saturday afternoon last spring as participants in the inaugural Hard Cider Apple Grafting Workshop hosted by the UW–Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS). Crowded around tables in a basement room in Moore Hall, they learned eagerly about grafting while awaiting the opportunity to try their own hands at the ancient technique.
Grafting is both a science and an art. Which is why a set of experts, including Amaya Atucha, a CALS and Extension fruit crop specialist, was on hand to explain and show how it works. Grafting involves taking a small branch from the tree you want to propagate (a scion) and connecting it to the bottom portion of a different apple tree (the rootstock). It must be done in such a way that the vascular systems of the two trees connect and fuse, “so they heal up together and become one unit,” says Atucha. It takes just a few precise cuts with a grafting knife and something to secure the bond.
“For the first cut, your goal is to get an inch-long, gradual angle across the base of the branch,” explains Matt Raboin MS’10 of Brix Cider, located near Barneveld, Wisconsin, as he demonstrates the cut to the attentive group. “You want a nice flat, straight surface.”
Next, he cuts a little flap into the base of the branch. He repeats the cuts on the rootstock and then brings the scion and rootstock together, slipping one flap over the other, and gives a push.
“Basically, it’s a puzzle; you’re fitting these two pieces together,” notes Marie Raboin MS’10, while showing how to secure the juncture with a wrap of stretchy tape. Marie and Matt, a married couple, co-own Brix Cider.
At this point, workshop participants are set loose to try the technique, known as the “whip and tongue” approach to grafting. Each selects an assortment of scions, grabs some rootstock, and then hunkers down to practice the cuts. It’s a messy, mesmerizing scene: A room full of enthusiastic, knife-wielding, novice grafters in deep concentration amid a jumble of branches, roots, and dirt.
“It’s like an adult kindergarten room, but instead of construction paper and scissors everywhere, there are branches and roots and grafting knives,” says CIAS associate director Michelle Miller BS’83, who organized the event as part of the center’s broader efforts to support Wisconsin’s craft cider industry.
Hard cider, a traditional drink of early America, has been making a comeback in recent years — in Wisconsin and around the nation. Among those who want to participate in this renaissance, including hobbyists and entrepreneurs, there’s an eagerness to learn how to graft and to procure cider apple trees.
“At the workshop, we were sharing scions from some unusual, cider-specific apple varieties that are hard to find,” Miller says. “There’s a lot of interest in that.”
Over the past few years, CIAS has been partnering with Wisconsin cider businesses, including Brix Cider, The Cider Farm near Hollandale, and others, to assess and address the needs and challenges of the state’s burgeoning cider industry. Together they have been working to help rediscover and rebuild some of the cider knowledge that was lost in the past, including information about which trees grow well in the state and what their apples taste like in cider form.
“In France and England, they’ve been making cider for hundreds of years,” Miller says. “They’ve figured out the best apples for their region for growing and producing tasty cider, and there are certain flavor profiles associated with certain areas. We don’t know that yet for Wisconsin. So we’re in the process of figuring out what trees work best in our area.”
CIAS, along with several farmer-participants, is about to embark on a new collaborative project to explore opportunities to expand markets and increase profitability for cider businesses. At the same time, the project will establish a professional guild for Wisconsin’s cider growers, creating a network of growers who can help support one another.
“We hope not just to grow our own business but to grow the industry as a whole, with a focus on family farms, regional flavors, sustainability, craft, and quality,” Matt Raboin says.
CIDER’S HISTORICAL UPS AND DOWNS
During America’s early years, hard cider was a popular beverage. Originally, for lack of refrigeration, all cider was hard cider (unless it was consumed within a few days of pressing). Left sitting at room temperature, apple juice ferments into cider within a couple of weeks as naturally occurring yeasts convert the sugars into alcohol. And that was a very good thing at the time.
Thanks to the alcohol it contained, hard cider was among the safest beverages around. The level of alcohol — from 3–4 percent for a cider fermented from wild yeast — helped kill pathogenic bacteria, making it a relatively sanitary option compared to the various untreated or unpasteurized beverages available at the time.
Cider’s popularity began to wane — and beer’s began to wax — during industrialization, as more people moved to cities, where it was easier to ship and store grain. But if beer cut into cider consumption, the temperance movement and prohibition chopped it down. Literally. During prohibition, many individuals cut down their cider trees. Likewise, to stay afloat, many cider businesses razed their orchards, replacing their trees with rows of sweet table apples — the kind you eat. Many prized, cider-specific varieties were lost.
Now, almost 100 years later, cider is experiencing a revival. Between 2011 and 2015, hard cider was the fastest growing alcoholic beverage category in the United States, with sales expanding from $89.9 million to $326.9 million, thanks primarily to the growth in sales of mass market ciders produced by large beer companies. More recently, there’s been a shift from mass-market ciders to craft ciders, similar to how consumers transitioned away from mass-market lagers to craft beer. Craft ciders now account for 25 percent of overall cider sales and have been experiencing double-digit growth for a number of years — a trend that looks like it will continue.
There are now around 800 cideries in the U.S., twice as many as there were three years ago. Wisconsin currently has 18 cideries, according to the Cyder Market website. Most of them are relatively new, established in the past decade or so, and most grow some of their own apples.
CIAS got into cider-focused work in 2016, when Brix Cider’s Matt Raboin, who was a part-time staff member at CIAS at the time, embarked on a project to assess the needs and challenges of cider businesses in Wisconsin and nearby states. The project was close to Raboin’s heart, as he and Marie were already working toward their Brix Cider dream. It was not the first CIAS project related to apples.
Founded in 1989, the CALS-based center focuses on sustainable agriculture research for small- and medium-sized farms. It specializes in using a participatory approach, bringing together farmers, academics, and others across many professions and disciplines to work side by side to develop research projects and educational programs that address farmers’ needs.
In the early 2000s, CIAS led an effort known as the Eco-Apple Project to help farmers ramp up their insect and disease monitoring programs and reduce their use of pesticides. The program spun off into a private-sector enterprise and continues to this day. The center also runs the university’s Midwest School for Beginning Apple Growers, an intensive three-day education program for people interested in starting an apple orchard business that attracts around 30 to 40 attendees each year.
The CIAS cider needs assessment project, funded in part by the David S. Bourne Foundation, compiled information from 44 cider businesses from around the region and identified a list of challenges. It quickly turned into something of a research agenda for the center. Cider businesses reported facing issues related to financing, marketing, and distribution. At the same time, they were eager for information about what cider apple varieties work best for the region.
The latter concern was particularly relevant for the Raboins, who were in the midst of trying to decide which trees to graft and plant in the Brix Cider orchard.
“There are literally thousands of possible varieties out there. It’s overwhelming,” Matt Raboin says. “We didn’t have the data to say, ‘These five varieties are the best ones, so we are going to grow these five.’ So we’ve planted over 100 varieties that we are trying out. Our orchard is kind of a living experiment.”
This need for information inspired the Raboins to embark on a research project to assess 40 promising cider varieties, work that CIAS later continued.
SEARCH FOR THE TASTIEST CIDER APPLES
Brix Cider’s home orchard is located in the rolling hills of Iowa County, just south of Barneveld. The Raboins live in an old farmhouse on the six-acre property along with their two young children and two dogs. They also lease a space in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, where they plan to house their production facility and a tasting room beginning in early 2019.
They planted their first graftings back in 2014 and now have around 1,000 trees on the property representing more than 100 varieties. Eventually, they hope to expand to a total of about 2,000 trees.
“I think a lot of the intent with the orchard is really to preserve and promote these old American varieties of apples,” Marie Raboin says. “We’re in America, and there’s a really strong cider heritage here. So we’ll grow some English and French varieties, but we’re really focusing on American cider varieties.”
Even 2,000 trees won’t be enough for all the cider the Raboins want to make. Brix Cider’s business model involves procuring local apples from other sources: abandoned orchards, wild trees, and the ugly or odd-looking (but perfectly edible) leftovers from pick-your-own orchards that would otherwise go to waste. The Raboins are particularly excited about their orchard series, a line of ciders featuring the apples gathered from individual orchards.
“Our business model is to partner with other orchards and create a market for underutilized fruit, because there are so many apples around that just don’t get harvested,” Marie Raboin says. “It’s a way to utilize the resources that are available and, I think, a way to help build a better community.”
In 2016, the Raboins received a Farmer Rancher Grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to assess 40 cider apple varieties for their characteristics. They gathered the apples (about a half bushel of each variety); pressed the juice and analyzed it for sugar, acidity, and tannins; fermented the juice into single-variety ciders; conducted a taste analysis; and then posted the results on Brix Cider’s website.
After that, Matt Raboin decided to write a grant proposal for CIAS to assess another 40 varieties. “We thought it would be better to try to incorporate other growers who have more experience, folks like Deirdre [Birmingham PhD’96] from The Cider Farm, and also get the university involved,” he says. “So there’s a team with more research skills, analytical experience, and expertise to take over this work.”
Not long after the new grant was secured, Matt Raboin left CIAS to ramp up his efforts with Brix Cider. Miller took over coordinating the project, and the Raboins opted to stay involved as farmer-participants.
The grant, along with additional support from the David S. Bourne Foundation, tapped several UW experts to help. Nick Smith, a fermentation expert in the Department of Food Science, made the ciders and tested their chemical makeup. Julie Dawson, an assistant professor of horticulture with expertise in participatory sensory analysis, led four tasting evaluations of the single-variety ciders.
At these events, which were run like blind taste tests, participants were asked to evaluate selections of the 40 ciders for various characteristics, including appearance, sweetness, bitterness, acidity, mouthfeel, flavor intensity, and overall performance.
Whereas mass-market ciders tend to be on the sweet side, craft ciders can be dry or off-dry. They come across as light and refreshing, with a crisp, appley flavor. Some have nice bubbles. Others can be reminiscent of a dry white wine, such as a sauvignon blanc.
This makes sense because cider is often made like a wine, using wine yeast. And, like wines, ciders can contain tannins, bitter-tasting compounds found in certain plants.
“[Tannins help] give structure, complexity, and mouthfeel to the beverage,” explains Birmingham. Her orchard, The Cider Farm, specializes in English and French varieties that are high in tannins. The tagline for The Cider Farm’s products is “cider refreshment, wine complexity.”
“Just like there are fine wines, we consider our ciders to be fine ciders,” she says. “We do use tart table apples as a base, but blending in the tannic apples makes all the difference.”
Birmingham, along with John Biondi, established The Cider Farm in 2003 on a lovely piece of property near Hollandale, Wisconsin, about a 15-minute drive from Brix Cider. They have about 10,000 trees and 4,000 graftings in the nursery, and they plan to expand their orchard to as many as 25,000 trees. And they are doing all of it organically. (Read more about Birmingham in our “In the Field” series on alumni entrepreneurs.)
Birmingham and Biondi, who will open a tasting room and production space in Madison in the coming months, are active farmer-participants in CIAS cider projects; they contributed their scion and expertise to the grafting workshop as well as their apples and palates to the single-variety evaluation.
“[We were] particularly interested in the results of the focus group cider tastings as a way to get a better feel for market preferences among craft cider customers,” says Birmingham.
Overall, traditional English and French varieties tended to rate well in the evaluations, as did some of the popular American heirloom varieties. A few wild varieties also stood out, including the Bergere apple, a variety the Raboins discovered in an abandoned field. It turned out to be the most bitter of the bunch.
“The guy who was picking with us that day, his name was Bergere. He’s the one who found the tree, so it’s called the Bergere,” explains Matt Raboin.
Between the two single-variety projects, cider hobbyists and businesses now have information about 80 cider varieties, data that can help them decide which trees to grow and which apples to try blending into a cider.
This information already proved useful last spring when it was time to decide which scions Brix Cider and The Cider Farm should bring to the CIAS-hosted grafting workshop for participants to take home and, ideally, help further propagate down the line.
“We selected trees that ranked high or looked like they had a lot of promise for flavor and for building a terroir of hard cider in our region,” Miller says.
A BOOSTER FOR THE CIDER INDUSTRY
CIAS is now involved in a new cider-focused project, along with partners at Michigan State University, Washington State University, and the University of Vermont, to understand and tackle issues related to the sales, marketing, and distribution of hard cider products. With funding from an Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the project aims to assess obstacles to profitability and identify opportunities for market expansion.
And there certainly seem to be opportunities out there. Nationally, the market is largely millennials and baby boomers; each group drinks about one-third of the cider consumed. “That’s who’s drinking cider right now. So there’s interest in how to expand to [other] cohorts,” Miller says.
In Wisconsin, she notes, there appears to be a relatively untapped market among tourists visiting traditional apple-growing regions, such as Door County and the Bayfield area. While these regions already have local cider producers, there may be room for more. The state is also conveniently located next to a national cider hot spot: Chicago.
“So we’re near this high-volume market where there’s a real preference for artisan ciders,” Miller says.
That said, it probably isn’t wise for entrepreneurs to jump in without considering the local market — and where they would fit into it. “At this point, the market is crowded in such a way that you really need to have a plan,” notes The Cider Farm’s Biondi, a longtime entrepreneur. “What part of the value chain are you going to compete in? How are you going to differentiate yourself?”
CIAS is also cautious about encouraging people to start new cider businesses because the economics aren’t well understood. The new AFRI-funded project is designed to shed light on this topic, notes Miller. At the same time, Wisconsin stands to benefit by interacting with the three partner institutions, which are located in states with more established cider industries.
“Just by participating, we think we can learn a lot that we can share with growers here in Wisconsin,” says Miller.
Brix Cider and The Cider Farm provided letters of support for the new CIAS grant and are serving as advisers. They will be involved in various aspects of the project, including a Wisconsin-specific effort to create a network for the state’s cider businesses for sharing information and resources and working together to advance the state’s craft cider industry.
It will be an organization for existing cider makers — and hopefully some newcomers, too.
“We get emails all the time from folks that say, ‘I’m so-and-so from this little town in Wisconsin, and I want to start a cidery, I want to plant a cider orchard,’” says Matt Raboin.
These are the folks that the Raboins, as well as Birmingham and Biondi, are happy to share their accumulated wisdom with (and their scions, in certain cases) — the ones who reach out to them through email, at presentations and workshops, and via the soon-to-be cider network. The big-picture goal is to make sure all Wisconsin-made craft ciders are top-notch.
“We find a lot of customers assume that they don’t like cider. They say, ‘Oh, I’m not a cider drinker,’” Matt Raboin explains. “But if we can convince them to try it, they often like it. So it’s important that other cider makers make good cider — so that people’s first experience is a good one, and they’ll want to try other ciders on the shelf.”
Online Extra: Fruitful Outreach
UW Fruit Team Supports Wisconsin Apple Growers
Managing an apple orchard isn’t the romantic endeavor some might imagine. There’s a lot to do. Thankfully, Wisconsin’s commercial growers have the UW Fruit Team to turn to for help and guidance.